Reproductive Rights: U.S. Supreme Court Cases
Reproductive rights in America can vary significantly from one state to the next. Each jurisdiction has its own laws relating to abortion rights, contraception, and family planning. Lawmakers are writing new abortion laws nationwide that often get challenged in court.
Federal courts and district courts have served as venues for contesting these issues for decades. The final decision-maker on these laws is the U.S. Supreme Court.
This article highlights significant cases of national prominence over the years. There are cases involving the reproductive rights of individuals, including the right to:
- Use contraception
- Plan a family
- Raise children
- Gain access to reproductive healthcare
The links are to the full text of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
U.S. Supreme Court Decisions on Reproductive Rights
There are often a few overarching themes present in most abortion cases. Anti-abortion advocates argue that terminating a potential life is both illegal and unethical. Pro-choice advocates say an unborn fetus is not a "life" in the way that anti-abortion advocates assert.
After Roe v. Wade, it was, under most circumstances, only legal to end a pregnancy during the first trimester. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed a person's right to privacy. It also ruled that rights to due process outweighed government authorities' interests in attempts to regulate a person's personal choices.
The Court ruled in Roe that a person's right to privacy guaranteed them a fundamental right to abortion care. The Court asserted that a person has such a right to medical choices, including abortion rights. Under the care of health care providers or gynecologists, a person should be able to exercise their right to end a pregnancy, SCOTUS indicated.
The Supreme Court also ruled that states have a legitimate interest in preserving human life. From there, states were allowed to create some restrictions on abortion. These restrictions were based on fetal viability. These laws usually connect to one of the three trimesters of gestation.
Continue reading to learn more about Supreme Court cases related to abortion, the rights of parents, and contraception:
- Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) — Cited in over 100 Supreme Court cases, the Court established parents' constitutional rights to send their children to private schools.
- Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942) — This decision holds that states may not impose sterilization as a penalty for a crime.
- Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) — This decision established that the government has the authority to regulate the actions and treatment of children. The decision dictated that states have this power, even against parental authority. But that state authority still needed to act in the child's best interests. In this case, the Court held that a mother may face prosecution for having her children distribute religious literature.
- Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) — The Court struck down a law prohibiting married couples from using birth control. It thereby found a constitutional right for married couples to use contraceptives.
- Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) — This decision established that unmarried people have the same contraception rights as married couples. It thereby ruled that people are constitutionally able to engage in non-procreative sexual intercourse. The Court made this argument on the same basis as in Griswold.
- Roe v. Wade (1973) — In this landmark case, the Court held that people have a constitutional right to terminate pregnancies at up to 12 weeks of gestation. It ruled that pregnant people may do so through a fundamental right to abortion. This was the case that ended all abortion bans. After the 12-week mark, the Court found that states are more interested in regulating women's rights to privacy in this area. Read a detailed discussion of this landmark case on FindLaw's page on reproductive rights. In this case, SCOTUS struck down a Texas law that limited pregnant people's constitutional right to get abortions.
- Doe v. Bolton (1973) — In this case, SCOTUS struck down a law in Georgia. This law limited the reasons a person could receive abortions. Striking this law down, the Supreme Court expanded pregnant people's access to abortion. It also protected women's abortion rights.
- Carey v. Population Services International (1977) — The Court expanded constitutional protections in the area of birth control by allowing makers of contraceptives more freedom to distribute and sell their products to teens. Before this decision, only licensed doctors and pharmacists could distribute birth control to minors.
- Harris v. McRae (1980) — This U.S. Supreme Court case concerned the Hyde Amendment. The Hyde Amendment bans the use of federal funds for abortion. As a federally funded variety of health insurance, Medicaid cannot pay for abortions. As a result of this Supreme Court case, the Hyde Amendment remains in effect. People cannot use Medicaid for abortions.
- Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) — Reaffirming the essential holding in Roe v. Wade, the Court held that states may regulate some aspects of abortion. The aspects of abortion that remain regulated due to this decision include waiting periods to get an abortion. They also include requiring that abortion providers explain the risks of abortion. It also established the "viability" standard. If a person wants to end a pregnancy, they can't once the fetus can survive outside the womb.
- Stenberg v. Carhart (2000) — Due to this Supreme Court decision, bans on "partial-birth" abortions were unconstitutional. At issue in this case was a challenge to a Nebraska law. Under this law, all "partial-birth" abortions were illegal. The exception to this is when such abortions would save a pregnant person's life.
- Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood (2006) — The Court refused to strike down a parental notification law because only a few applications of the law presented a constitutional problem.
- Gonzales v. Carhart (2007) — In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the federal ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortions.
- McCullen v. Coakley (2014) — The Court struck down a Massachusetts abortion clinic "buffer zone" law. This law kept protesters more than 11 yards away from patients. The Court ruled that the "buffer zone" effectively cut off free speech efforts on sidewalks and other public thoroughfares.
- Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) — The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act violated a federal law protecting religious freedom. The Court ruled that federal religious-freedom law applied only to "closely held" for-profit corporations run on religious principles.
- Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (2016) — Texas passed a law forcing all abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic. This would have cut the number of abortion clinics in half. In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that this law placed an undue burden on women seeking an abortion. The Court ruled this because the admitting privileges severely limited abortion access. Limiting this access meant the law was unconstitutional, SCOTUS asserted.
- June Medical Services v. Russo (2020) — Louisiana passed a law nearly identical to the one struck down in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt. The Supreme Court stuck to precedent. It declared Louisiana's law unconstitutional. But, this was a 5-4 decision, as Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the Court in 2017, agreed with the dissenting justices. In this case, the district court decided in favor of the Louisiana law.
- Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization (2022) — Before this case, Mississippi's legislature enacted a law prohibiting all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. This violated previous Supreme Court decisions and was a vehicle to overturn Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, did so. It held that the Constitution does not provide a right to abortion and invalidated both Roe and Casey. The result is that abortion rights now fall under state law.
Breakdown of Roe v. Wade
In Roe, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a Texas law restricting pregnant people's access to abortion. The Court ruled that abortions were not allowed starting with the second trimester.
Certain exceptions still applied. For example, in medical emergencies related to pregnancy, a woman could end a pregnancy beyond the first trimester. In such emergencies, there must be a life-threatening problem with the pregnancy. In such cases, terminating a pregnancy is legal as long as if the pregnancy were to continue, the pregnant person's life would be jeopardized.
While the lower court favored the law, the Supreme Court reversed this ruling. It became a question of the stages of pregnancy when it came to whether a fetus had a right to be born. The Court decided that at 24 or before weeks of gestation, ending a pregnancy was not against the law. But of course, in cases where abnormalities arise, and the pregnancy would endanger the person's life, a person could still get an abortion after 24 weeks.
U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade
In 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. In a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, SCOTUS ruled that the U.S. Constitution never protected access to abortion.
In overturning Roe, SCOTUS nullified the finding in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court that constitutional rights to privacy protect a person's right to choose when it comes to pregnancy. SCOTUS also found that while parts of the U.S. Constitution protected people from overly intrusive government practices, it did not protect a person's right to access an abortion.
You can still get an abortion in most states. Just keep in mind that this is a matter left up to the states in the wake of Dobbs.
Have Your Reproductive Rights Been Violated? An Attorney Can Help You
In 2022, SCOTUS' decision in the Dobbs case resulted in the overruling of Roe v. Wade. Overruling Roe, the Supreme Court eliminated constitutional protections for access to abortion. Now, states may decide for themselves what their abortion laws permit.
Under state laws and state constitutions, each jurisdiction may make its own decisions about abortion, though courts have asserted people's fundamental right to make decisions about their own bodies. In the wake of Dobbs, it is still possible for people to seek and get the reproductive health services they need. It is also still possible to get legal abortions and abortion services. It is still possible to get abortion care.
Abortions are still legal in many states. These states, for example, include Pennsylvania, New York, and Kansas. If you're struggling with an issue related to abortion, it's important you contact an attorney. Dobbs removed the protections that Roe gave to those seeking abortions. Check your state's laws.
Understanding your reproductive rights and the Supreme Court cases that continue to shape them is crucial. And with abortion no longer protected under the U.S. Constitution, knowing your state's laws on reproductive rights and abortion restrictions is more necessary than ever. But these laws can get complicated, and some finer points are often best left to the professionals who understand the law and how it can apply to your situation. Get help today from an experienced family law attorney near you.
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